Born May 8, 1911, near Hazlehurst, MS; son of Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson (a plantation worker); died of probable poisoning August 16, 1938, near Greenwood, MS; believed buried in an unmarked grave at Mt. Zion Church, near Morgan City, MS, new evidence indicates burial site as Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Church, near Quito, MS. Married twice. Itinerant blues singer and guitarist, recording artist, composer. Traveled throughout the South and as far north as Detroit and Chicago, playing in small clubs--juke joints--and at informal gatherings. Disappeared in 1930, returned with a guitar and uncanny musical prowess. Recorded 16 songs, including "Kind Hearted Woman," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," "Sweet Home Chicago," and "Terraplane Blues," for the American Record Company (ARC), November, 1936; recorded 13 songs for ARC, June, 1937.
Robert Johnson, the legendary Mississippi Delta blues singer, was a real person; that much is known. The mystery that is his life and art occurred between such well-defined events as his birth in 1911, the revelation of his remarkable musical skills around 1931, two recording sessions in 1936 and 1937, and his death in 1938. When the first album of his recordings was released in 1961 very little was known about Robert Johnson. By the time Columbia Records released Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings in 1990 more was known, but the mystery remained.
Like other early Delta blues singers, Robert Johnson was part and parcel of an oral tradition that began with a mixture of field hollers, chants, fiddle tunes, and religious music and ended up as the blues. The Mississippi Delta, 200 miles of fertile lowlands stretching from Memphis, Tennessee, in the north to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the south, was one of the primary locales in which the blues originated and developed. Johnson is critically recognized as the culmination of the Delta blues tradition, as exemplified by Delta blues artists Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, and others. Characteristically, Delta blues are sung by a single artist playing an acoustic guitar, often using a bottleneck or similar instrument on the frets to achieve a distinctive sound. The next generation of musicians--and those who outlived Johnson--may have grown up in the Delta, but most left it to go north and sing the city blues of Chicago. Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf are two prominent Chicago bluesmen, both originally from the Delta, who knew Robert Johnson and were heavily influenced by him.
Waters, born McKinley Morganfield, grew up in the Delta, and though he never actually met Robert Johnson, his single encounter with him has been widely quoted. As Waters described the meeting in American Visions, among other sources, "It was in Friar's Point, and this guy had a lot of people standin' around him. He coulda been Robert, they said it was Robert. I stopped and peeked over, and then I left. He was a dangerous man." Knowledge of Johnson, like that of his music, has come largely through recollections of musicians and others who knew him. Two of the best sources of information have been legendary Delta singer Son House, himself Johnson's elder, and Johnny Shines, a contemporary who met Johnson in 1935 and traveled with him for a while. Additional information has been uncovered by researchers, who have helped to establish Johnson's birth date as May 8, 1911. Some of the circumstances of Johnson's death particularly remain unclear; there is even a dispute over the true site of his grave.
Fortunately, the recordings remain and the issuance of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings has refocused attention on the life and artistry of this legendary bluesman. Throughout his career and posthumous fame, recordings have played an important role in Johnson's art and its influence on younger musicians. Johnson himself was probably influenced by early blues artists like Skip James, who was recorded in 1931, the year that Johnson amazed his elders with his mastery of the guitar. James's eerie, peculiarly unique style appears throughout Johnson's recordings, most notably in "32-20 Blues," which he adapted from James's "22-20 Blues."
Johnson first came to the attention of modern musicians, notably the rock generation of the 1960s, with the release of King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961. Due to the country blues revival of the time, older musicians who had sung as young men in the 1930s began to enjoy a second career and renewed popularity among hip, new audiences. Johnson's album contained selections from his 1936 and 1937 recording sessions, some of them previously unreleased. The album revealed a tremendous talent on vocals and guitar as well as an amazing ability in the lyrics of Johnson's self-composed blues. The album challenged younger rock musicians and showed them what the blues were all about. Johnson's first album was so popular that it was reissued in 1969; a second followed in 1970. Bob Dylan has written that Johnson was one of two musicians--the other being Woodie Guthrie--who most influenced him. Among the Robert Johnson songs covered by rock musicians in the 1960s and later were "Love in Vain" and "Stop Breakin' Down"--recorded by the Rolling Stones--and "Crossroad Blues"--recorded by Eric Clapton with Cream.
Many of Johnson's compositions had also become blues standards by the 1960s, thanks to Chicago blues artists Waters and Elmore James. In 1951 Elmore James recorded Johnson's "Dust My Broom," making it a national hit. "Sweet Home Chicago," another Johnson composition, has been played and recorded by countless Chicago bluesmen. As a traveling musician who had crisscrossed the Delta region many times and gone as far north as Detroit and Chicago in the previous six years, Johnson had ample opportunity to refine his lyrics, judging their popularity and impact by his audiences' reactions. A traveling musician like Johnson would have played to a variety of gatherings, from Saturday night juke joint crowds to friendly groups gathered for outdoor picnics. As Johnny Shines recalled, Robert Johnson was a rambling man who was ready to hop a freight at the drop of a hat. "He was a natural rambler," Shines told Pete Welding, as recorded in the Down Beat Music Yearbook. "His home was where his hat was, and even then lots of times he didn't know where that was. We used to travel all over ... used to catch freights everywhere. Played for dances, in taverns, on sidewalks."
While these types of playing conditions provided Johnson with a means of refining his songs, it was the discipline of the three-minute 78 rpm record that drove him to hone them into a more commericial form. He crafted his songs with a self-conscious artistry; he sang of women, drinking, traveling, and the devil. His lyrics contain haunting metaphors and vivid personifications. Rather than joining interchangeable "floating verses," as many other Delta bluesmen did, Johnson made each song a statement, with intentionally developed themes. As Greil Marcus noted in the New York Times, Johnson's songs have "an immediacy which is unmatched in the blues, and an impulse toward drama."
Johnson recorded 29 songs for the American Record Company, which eventually became part of the Columbia Broadcasting System. His complete recorded canon includes 29 masters, plus 12 surviving alternate takes, all recorded at two ARC sessions held in San Antonio and Dallas. Johnson got started recording the way many other Delta musicians did--by auditioning. H. C. Speir was a white ARC talent scout who ran a music store in Jackson, Mississippi. He had been acting as a talent scout for seven years and was responsible for getting blues artists Patton, House, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, and others into the recording studio. Speir passed Robert Johnson on to Ernie Oertle, another ARC talent scout and salesman in the mid-South, who offered to take him to San Antonio to record in November of 1936.
Like many of his songs, which help reveal the kind of life he led, Robert Johnson's life itself has had a "considered and achieved effect," not only on his contemporaries, but also on subsequent generations of musicians. During his life, tales were circulated about him, explaining the unknown aspects of his life; and when he was murdered in 1938, at least three versions were given credibility--that he was stabbed to death by a jealous husband, stabbed by a woman, or poisoned by parties unknown. Subsequent research, based on eyewitness accounts, indicates that he was poisoned by a jealous husband. In August of 1938 Johnson and Honeyboy Edwards were playing at a house party in Three Forks, near Greenwood, Mississippi. Johnson became too familiar with the companion of the man who had hired him to play, and he drank some poisoned whiskey and died three days later. Welding, quoting Shines's account in the Down Beat Music Yearbook, related that by the time the story reached Shines, who had left Johnson to live with his own family in Memphis, Johnson had been "poisoned by one of those women who really didn't care for him at all. And Robert was almost always surrounded by that kind ... seems like they just sought him out.... And I heard that it was something to do with the black arts. Before he died, it was said, Robert was crawling along the ground on all fours, barking and snapping like a mad beast. That's what the poison done to him."
Shines's reference to "the black arts" evokes another myth about Johnson: namely, that he sold his soul to the devil in order to achieve mastery over the guitar. The myth grew in response to an absence of information about how Johnson had learned to play the guitar so well. As a teenager he had had a reputation among older musicians, like House and Willie Brown, for being a pest who would grab their instruments and try to play them. House had to tell him, "You shouldn't do that, Robert. You're worrying the people.... You can't play, and you're just keeping up a lot of noise with it." As House recalled for Welding in the Down Beat Music Yearbook, Johnson ran away from home for about six months--though some sources say his absence spanned nearly two years-- when his stepfather wanted him to work in the fields with him. More reliable sources attribute Johnson's 1930 departure and extended absence from Northern Mississippi to the death of his first wife and subsequent remarriage. When Johnson returned he had his own guitar. Robert Jr. Lockwood and a subsequently discovered photograph confirm that Johnson's guitar of choice was a Gibson Kalamazoo. Johnson demonstrated such a great ability upon his return home--most likely the fruits of bluesman Ike Zinnerman's tutelage--that House believed he had "sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning to play like that."
Although Johnson never confirmed the story, another Delta blues musician, Tommy Johnson, once told his brother the same tale about going down to the crossroads to meet the devil at midnight. Folk researchers draw a parallel between the devil in the story and the African Yoruba god, Legba, the trickster, whose favorite haunt was a crossroads. It seems Johnson knew the life he sang about quite well, and his songs are rife with devil imagery. As if hiding some secret talent, he would often turn his back when he felt the eyes of another musician were watching him too closely. All of which adds to the myth, but takes nothing away from the music of the shadowy blues artist who came to be known as the "King of the Delta Blues Singers."
by David Bianco
Robert Johnson's Career
- Selective Works
- King of the Delta Blues Singers, Columbia, 1961.
- King of the Delta Blues Singers: Volume 2, Columbia, 1970.
- Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, Columbia, 1990.
- Charters, Samuel, The Bluesmen, Oak Publications, 1967.
- Guralnick, Peter, Searching for Robert Johnson, Dutton, 1989.
- Marcus, Greil, Mystery Train, Dutton, 1975.
- Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking, 1981.
- American Visions, June 1988.
- Chicago Tribune, January 5, 1990.
- Down Beat Music Yearbook, 1966.
- Esquire, October 1990.
- Living Blues, No. 94, 1990.
- Musician, January 1991.
- Nation, October 8, 1990.
- New York Times, November 22, 1970.
- Record Research, No. 43, May 1963.
- Rolling Stone, October 18, 1990.
- Wilson Library Bulletin, November 1975.
- Additional information provided by Robert Johnson historian Stephen C. LaVere.